For many people their most important three words are “I love you.” But for Olympian John Fennell, his three most important words were “I am gay.” In essence, it was a declaration to love and honor himself enough to finally come out of the closet when he turned 19.
Already an Olympian, Fennell is now on the fast track to the 2018 Winter Olympics … literally – he slides down a luge track at speeds up to 140 km/hour; that’s just a hair shy of 87 miles-per-hour. Sharing his coming out story in 2014 with the Calgary Herald, Fennell said, “I thought to myself, ‘how the hell am I brave enough to go down this hill if I can’t be brave enough to be who I am?’”
As the son of former Canadian Football League player Dave Fennell and the younger brother of Michigan State nose tackle David Fennell Jr., he comes from an athletic family and says he loves sports because it “provides an opportunity for people to connect and be part of something bigger than any one person.” Although born in Denver, Colorado, the 21-year-old athlete says he’s lived in Calgary, Alberta since he can remember. Having played football, soccer and basketball, run track and skied, Fennell became totally hooked on luge at age 10 after attending a “Learn to Luge” session.
As a 14-year-old spectator at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, the event stirred and solidified a dream to become an Olympian. Fennell quickly moved up through the junior ranks and competed for Canada for the inaugural Youth Olympics in Innsbruck in 2012. In 2013 Fennell moved into the senior ranks, becoming a member of national Team Canada, and the next year he was chosen as one of the Canadian team to compete in the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
However, with all the blatant homophobia and arrest threats by the Russians against openly gay athletes and fans in advance of the Sochi Games, in desperation he reached out for some help from openly gay Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Mark Tewksbury who came out in 1998. Fennell was finally able to say the words, “I am gay” to Tewksbury, who also happens to be Fennell’s favorite athlete.
Fennell still had to face competing in Russia, though, saying what scared him the most from the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) debriefing was that “any information in Russia is subject to being seen by the government. So I didn’t travel with my phone or my computer when we went there,” calling it a testament to how nervous he was. On the way to Sochi, at an Olympic training stop in Latvia, Fennell had what he termed an epiphany while standing at the top of the icy track. He could no longer live a life in hiding. As a result of that sudden realization and in spite of his fear, he came out while in Russia.
While there were a couple of out Canadian female athletes, Fennell didn’t know of any Canadian male athletes who were willing to be open about their sexual orientation – he lamented that lack of leadership and finally decided to take the reins himself. Nervous or not, the 19-year-old luger concluded that coming out would actually improve his athletic career since he’d no longer have to compete while being plagued by the fear of being outed. He also hoped his action might help other closeted athletes do the same.
“I’m an athlete,” he said in the Calgary Herald interview. “Realistically, I put on a spandex suit and slide down a mountain. I’m no message board for political movements. But we need to have leaders in our sport community. If it takes a 19-year-old to step up and do that, I’m more than willing to use my voice or the platform that I’ve been given to give a figurehead to gay youth in sport.” On a personal basis, he’s assessed his life post-coming out as one of freedom – he called the experience of coming out “liberating.”
Although Fennell only placed 27th in the men’s luge at Sochi, according to Sam Edney, considered the “elder statesman” of the Canadian luge team and someone Fennell had come to for support, “he’s an amazingly gifted athlete.” Edney called Fennell the “picture perfect luge athlete.” At 6-foot-4, weighing in at 205 pounds, he says Fennell is tall and lean with long arms for starting leverage, he has “incredible power and strength” and is also “extremely mature.”
After graduating from National Sport School in 2013, Fennell has been working on a degree in business at the University of Calgary; he lists his greatest personal achievement as his ability to attend school, train and work. In his spare time he enjoys hiking, skiing, fishing and hanging out with a black lab named Duke. Now, building on his valuable experience at the 2014 Winter Games, his eyes are now totally focused on training for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018.
Dan Palmer of Inside the Games reports that Fennell, currently residing in Rouses Point, New York, is hoping to compete for the U.S. in the International Luge Federation (FIL) World Cup series but would need to qualify via USA Luge’s selection process in the fall. USA Luge is a not-for-profit organization focused on recruiting, developing, training and supporting athletes to represent the United States in all international luge competitions, including the Olympic Games.
Fennell, who holds dual U.S./Canadian citizenship, came to the U.S. in the spring to practice with the U.S. national team in Lake Placid. The rules state that a competitor can race for only one country within the same sporting year. Although he had no opportunity to qualify since he didn’t complete all required events to earn the requisite 32 World Cup points, he was recruited to provide color commentary for the ILF’s live stream this past December. On December 2, 2016 he tweeted “For me this year is a rebuild – break habits, build confidence and learn. Proud to be part of an organization that allows me to do that. #usa”
But don’t forget his commitment to compete in the Pyeongchang Winter Games in 2018 because he certainly hasn’t – he considers competing at the Olympics as his greatest athletic achievement. And Fennell’s biggest goal while there is to compete as his authentic self, as a gay man. He says that regardless of how difficult coming out may seem, it is always better to be authentic. On his website he lists a number of personal descriptors, including the following: “I spend an abnormal amount of time in spandex.” It sounds like congratulations are in order for him following his own advice about being authentic. He’s definitely an up and coming athlete, and honestly, who doesn’t love a guy in spandex!
You can follow John Fennell’s athletic career at www.johncanluge.com.
By Harry Andrew